Overhaul of Professional Development Critical to Student Success, Report Says

Is the world of education seeing a resurgence of respect for the much-maligned term, “professional development”? Can it shake off its reputation for dreaded, episodic, daylong workshops that fail to connect to anything relevant in a teacher’s classroom? Maybe, according to a new report by the Center for American Progress (CAP), but it depends on whether enough policymakers have gotten the message.

“The ‘professional development system’ for teachers is, by all accounts, broken,” says Harvard University Professor Heather C. Hill. Hill, along with colleague Corinne Herlihy, recently issued a set of recommendations for education policymakers, which are highlighted in  the CAP report.

The author of the report, Jenny DeMonte, associate director for education research at CAP, believes that new teacher evaluation policies and the roll-out of the Common Core State Standards has created an urgency for an overhaul of professional development.

“The education industry … has recently made a sizable bet on the power of professional support to change teaching and boost student learning,” DeMonte writes. “Almost every presentation or speech or conversation about educational reform inevitably includes some reference to the amount of support and training teachers and administrators will need in order to make key reforms real and effective in classrooms.”

Generally, all that talking hasn’t – yet – led to a sea change in professional learning. Too many teachers across the country are still being being provided with PD that is too generic, too sporadic, not tailored to their classrooms and allows for little, if any, time for collaboration with colleagues.

In the CAP report, DeMonte reviews recent research to identify a consensus on what educators and administrators believe are the tenets of successful professional learning. In addition to addressing the issues cited above, training should also be job-embedded, allow for continuous follow-up and feedback, and include time for new learning strategies.

Furthermore, new models of teacher evaluation, the report states, need to emphasize insightful feedback that leads to activities that can help educators improve their performance. That, after all, should be the whole point of evaluation, not to weed out “bad” teachers.

DeMonte spotlights the work of Hill and Herlihy, who provide a roadmap for districts to navigate away from weak post-observation conferences and a lack of robust and tailored professional learning opportunities.

“The reform of the teacher evaluation system will see its chief success not through carrots and sticks,” the two Harvard academics write, “but through providing teachers with information about their performance and the means for improvement.”

Hill and Herlihy recommend investing in professional development for administrators and other evaluators so they can deliver the kind of feedback teachers need; create professional learning communities so teachers can share and analyze skills and content; and make sure teachers are more aware of the PD opportunities that are available. How states approach these specific policies these will differ, but the goal of evaluation should always be instructional improvement.

DeMonte also takes a look at the challenges surrounding the implementation of the Common Core Standards. Integrating these standards has been an enormous undertaking, and has understandably sent anxiety levels skyrocketing.

“Changing the behavior and professional practice of teachers will require intensive and high-quality opportunities for professional learning—with a strong focus on content that engages teachers to learn, is sustained over time, and involves collaboration and feedback from colleagues,” DeMonte says. “Such professional development for teachers will be an essential element of the success of the policy.”

DeMonte outlines three general recommendations that can – at least in the area of professional development – help make implementation a success.

  • Provide educators with comprehensive resources to support new classroom instruction.
  • Take advantage of the shared standards of the Common Core and create and tap into resources that enable educators to share teaching strategies and lesson plans.
  • Educators across the country should make use of the many Common Core-specific videos and other online resources that are essential in shaping and improving professional learning opportunities. Effective use of technology, according to DeMonte, could determine in large part the success of the standards.

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The National Education Association recently launched the Great Public Schools Network, a free online collaborative tool, part of the Raise Your Hand initiative to engage members, affiliates and community members to improve public education.  It is open to all educators!

Read High Quality Professional Development for Teachers: Supporting Teacher Training to Improve Student Learning by the Center for American Progress.